Debut of a Media Column
This week begins an every-other week media column I'll be writing in the Free Times, one of two Cleveland alternative weeklies (and a special welcome to Free Times readers who've never visited before). The debut column concerns a subject which you may have been reading about elsewhere--the federal government's crackdown on leaks from classified information and grand jury investigations--but which until now has only been mostly a theoretical concern in Northeast Ohio. No longer. The federal corruption trial of Nate Gray and others close to former Cleveland Mayor Mike White, which took place last year in a federal courthouse in Akron, led to several plea agreement as well as a conviction of Gray. He's now appealing.
But the case has also had a fascinating postscript, as the judge and the prosecution try to learn how certain sealed documents leaked out into the media, eventually landing in articles in the Scene and, a day later, the Plain Dealer. As the column explains, the special prosecutors in this case are likely to subpoena reporters, setting the stage for what would no doubt be a case of legal trench warfare. The owners of both the Plain Dealer and Scene have a history of aggressively protecting their work from legal tampering.
It couldn't be a more appropriate time to put a spotlight on this tawdry (and sadly increasing) practice of trying to pry sources out of members of the media, just a day after we celebrated the 230th birthday of a nation whose founders put freedom of the press at the center of our system's checks and balances on government tyranny. The Supreme Court last visited this subject way back in 1972, when the justices were considerably more media-friendly, establishing what's come to be called a "qualified privilege" for media, which kind of/sometime protects them from having to testify about sources. This half shield has been a source of debate ever since.
This case will be closely watched, perhaps even around the country, and I was glad to be able to get onto the record the first substantial look at where it may be headed. I hope (and expect) others will keep a watch on this, while I go on to many other issues. And god knows, there's never been a better time to write about media developments. Nearly everything is now in flux, with new media changing consumption habits and old business models morphing into giant question marks about who will underwrite serious reporting, and how. I've been lucky enough to have been in the middle of some of these developments, and thus see at least as much cause for optimism as for concern. I plan to follow all of this ferment--the media equivalent of what an economist named Joseph Schumpeter famously called creative destruction--and try my best to explain what it might portend for the public, and perhaps even for democracy.